English 443: The Literature of the Middle Ages

About the Course

This course will introduce you to the language and literature of the English Middle Ages through a focused study on the development of English identity, sense of the past, and popular culture. The course will cover a range of genres texts written in Old and Middle English.

In this course, you will learn:

  • to read several dialects of Middle English
  • to recognise the characteristics of major literary genres in the English Middle Ages
  • to appreciate forms of literature that are little known to readers today
  • to examine critically how medieval English literature participated in the construction of a sense of cultural identity through an engagement with the historical past.


Course Information

  • Monday, Wednesday
  • Time: 2:00 PM - 3:15 PM (Course Number 14337)
  • Location: Jerome Richfield 244
  • Office Location: Sierra Tower 803
  • Office Hours:


The images above link to ordering pages on Amazon.com. The first two textbooks are inexpensive; however, you may also access them for free in your browser and print them (you get a readable, if slightly less useable version). Links to the online versions are given in the course schedule. If you are a graduate student or have a serious interest in the material, I syggest that you purchase the paper editions. However, if you do not do so, you must print out the online editions and bring the printout to class.

Always bring your textbook/printout to class. Really.

Coursework and Grading

Your grade will consist of the following elements: preparation and participation, multiple short quizzes in class, and two writing assignments.

Preparation and Participation

Preparation and Participation will make up approximately 10% of your final grade according to my discretion. I will assign points based factors such as on-time attendance, classroom participation/disruption, bringing your textbook to class, and so on. For further information on factors that can influence your grade, see under Class Policies below.

Writing Assignments

You will have two writing assignments, the first worth 30% and the second worth 40%. You will have a choice of doing:

  1. A traditional literary criticism essay.
  2. A creative assignment and an accompanying reflection paper.

You can choose to do one assignment of each type or do the same type for both assignments. Regardless of which type you choose, there will be a research component.


There will be several short quizzes which will test (a) whether you arrive to class on time (b) whether you have done the reading with some basic understanding of plot in preparation for class, and (c) whether you know some basic historical context for the reading. These quizzes will be worth a total of 20% of your final grade.

Class Policies

By enrolling in this course you agree to be bound for the purposes of this class by the policies below, which serve as a formal legal agreement. You may reject these policies by dropping the class within the time allotted by the University.


Grades are A, B, C, D, or F and can receive a plus or minus. To receive a grade other than a WU, you must have completed more than half the coursework (no exceptions).

Since students in English courses are expected by society at large to be acquiring writing skills, I privilege grammar, spelling, and editing in my grading. Work containing distracting numbers of typos, spelling mistakes, or grammatical errors will be graded primarily on these criteria on a sliding scale which may supersede any percentages given in the Coursework and Grading section above. That is, the more distracting these factors are, the more they are worth (up to 100% of your grade). A rough guide to what is distracting is any sign that might give an employer pause when evaluating a job application.

Make-Up Tests

I will only administer tests once and am not required to provide you with the opportunity to take make-up tests if you miss them at the assigned time. I will only administer make-up tests if 1) you have a legitimate excuse recognised by the university, 2) I am able to do so without adversely impacting other students either by taking time from my other duties or by creating conditions that would give you an unfair advantage for the purposes of grading.

Extra Credit

In some semesters opportunities may arise for non-required activities such as guest lectures, and I will offer extra credit for attendance at or participation in these activities. I will always offer this extra credit to the entire class. Because my time commitments do not allow me grade extra assignments, I do not award extra credit to individual students for any reason. I keep to this policy very strictly.

Preparation and Participation

Enrolling in this class requires a commitment to participate in a community of learners in which you agree to contribute to and not to detract from the learning environment. In order to receive full credit for participation, you must do the readings in advance, bring assigned textbooks to each class, be prepared to discuss the materials, and complete all assignments. You must also arrive to class regularly, arrive on time, and remain in the class room for the duration of the class period. For disruptive behaviour, I reserve the right to increase the proportion of your final grade allotted to participation, as I feel appropriate.

Inappropriate Use of Technology in Class

Ringing and/or vibrating cell phones in class disrupt my concentration and that of your fellow students, inevitably lowering the quality of the learning environment. If your cell phone goes off in class, I reserve the right to impose penalties to your grade or to ask you to leave the classroom, as I deem appropriate.

If you have a computer or smart phone in the classroom, it will be very tempting to check your e-mail, read Facebook, or generally surf the web for purposes unrelated to the class. Resist. If I catch you engaged in these activities, I reserve the right to impose penalties to your grade or ask you to leave the classroom, as I deem appropriate.

Academic Honesty

It is extremely important that all aspects of your work are come by honourably. Efforts to gain an advantage not given to all students are dishonest and regarded as an extremely serious matter by the academic community. Consequences range from probation to expulsion. University policy stipulates that plagiarism, the submission of another person’s work as your own, is a violation of academic honesty, even if it arises out of ignorance or oversight, rather than deliberate cheating. Enrolling in this class means that you agree to abide by my decision regarding the appropriate action to take in cases of academic dishonesty. If you have any questions about plagiarism, paraphrasing, quoting, or collaboration, please consult me.


CSUN values an inclusive learning environment, where we respect the varied perspectives and experiences of a diverse community. Students and faculty each have responsibility for maintaining a respectful space to express their opinions. Professional courtesy and consideration for our classroom community are especially important with respect to topics dealing with differences in race, color, gender and gender identity/expression, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, disability, and age.

As a “responsible employee” at CSUN, I am required by federal and state laws to report incidences of harassment and discrimination to the campus Title IX Coordinator if they are disclosed to me. If you have experienced harassment or discrimination and do not want the Title IX Coordinator notified, instead of disclosing the experience to me, you can speak confidentially with CSUN’s Care Advocate by calling (818) 677-7492. For more information regarding your university rights and options, please visit the University’s Title IX website at http://www.csun.edu/title-ix.

Add/Drop Policy

Students should make sure that they follow the university’s add/drop deadlines, outlined in the Schedule of Classes. According to university policy, drops are only allowed after the set date when “a) there is a serious and compelling reason–specifically the student’s emotional or physical health or financial condition is clearly in jeopardy, and b) there is no viable alternative–including repeating the class”. Students will need to provide documentation on official letterhead–a letter, on official stationery, from a doctor or an employer–to support their reasons. No adds will be allowed unless a student can provide documented proof–e.g., a clerical error–for the reason for the tardiness. Please make sure to meet the deadline!

Withdrawals and Incompletes

The standard grade if a student fails to complete the work for a class is a “WU”. This is the equivalent of an “F”, but the grade may be changed if you re-take the course at a future time. This grade is also assigned to students who have not attended after the first few classes of the semester but have not officially “withdrawn” from the course.

I may assign an Incomplete (“I”) if and only if you meet all of the following conditions:

  • You have completed the vast bulk of the assigned work;
  • You are passing the class;
  • You fill out and bring to me a Request for an Incomplete form (also available from the English Department office), on which I detail exactly what is still needed for completion of the course.
  • I can make no exceptions to this policy, even if it affects your financial aid.

Once you take an incomplete, you have a year from the date recorded on the form to complete the requirements of the course and have your grade changed; therefore, you should submit work early enough to allow me to grade your work and fill out the necessary forms to assign you a new grade.

Keep in mind that, after you take an Incomplete, any grading of your work becomes an added burden on my busy timetable during the following year. Therefore you should not expect the normal amount of comments on your work or any extra teaching beyond my normal office hours.

Jan. 22 Introduction and Background
Jan. 27 Anglo-Norman "Historical Fiction"
Handout: Geoffrey of Monomouth's History of the Kings of the Britons.
Read the whole thing if you can, but concentrate on Book 1; Book 9, chapters 1-2, 7-8, 9-12, 15-17; Book 10: chapters 1-3, 10-13; and Book 11.
Handout: Introducing the Literature of the Middle Ages pp. 1-14
Jan. 29 The Brut Tradition
Handout: Geffrei Gaimar's Estoire des Engleis and The Brut Chronicles
Feb. 3 The Breton Lay
Handout: Marie de France, Lanval
Handout: Introducing the Literature of the Middle Ages pp. 14-18
Feb. 5 Lanval (continued)
Feb. 10 Arthurian Romance
Handout: Chrétien de Troyes, Erec and Enide
Feb. 12 Erec and Enide (continued)
Feb. 17 The Revival of Literature in English
Handout: Reading Middle English
Handout: Introducing the Literature of the Middle Ages pp. 20-26
Feb. 19 The Middle English Language
Feb. 24 The Cultural Hybridity of Early Middle English Literature
Handout: Laȝamon's Brut. Read (and print out pages for) lines 1-67, 552-739, 975-1254, 14473-14860, 15864-16095.
Feb. 26 Devotional Reading
Handout: The Life of St Eustace from the South English Legendary
Mar. 2 Devotional Literature as Popular Literature
Sir Isumbras: Introduction | Text
Mar. 4 The Breton Lay in English
Sir Orfeo: Introduction | Text
Handout: Introducing the Literature of the Middle Ages pp. 18-20
Mar. 9 Sir Orfeo (continued)
Mar. 11 Sir Launfal: Introduction | Text
Mar. 23 Sir Launfal (continued)
Mar. 25 The English Tail-Rhyme Romance
Sir Eglamour of Artois: Introduction | Text
Mar. 30 Sir Eglamour (continued)
Apr. 1 Sir Eglamour (continued)
Apr. 8 Octavian: Introduction | Text
Apr. 8 Octavian (continued)
Apr. 13 Octavian (continued)
Apr. 15 Octavian (continued)
Apr. 20 Alliterative Revivals: Popular or Pretentious?
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Apr. 22 Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (continued)
Apr. 27 Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (continued)
Apr. 29 Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (continued)
May 4 Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (continued)
May 6 Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (continued)
May 11 Final Essay Due

FAQ for Tests

Q: How many questions will be on the test?

A: If you’re worried about the number of questions, it is probably just to ease your anxiety. The test is designed to be finished easily with lots of time to spare. Really. You may also be trying to perform some weird calculation about how much studying you should do. The worst thing you can do is make the number of questions an excuse to learn less. I can assess your understanding of the material regardless of the number of questions. My advice is that your make it a priority to use studying for tests as an excuse to make sure that the course material does not just go into short term memory. Remember that your education should be about personal growth.

Q: What should I focus on?

A: Focusing involves narrowing your vision and letting items on the periphery fade from your consciousness. To study for the test, focus on what we have covered in our class, and let other classes and other areas of your life (temporarily) fade. But don’t do that with anything we covered in the class. To understand the material, you need to pay attention to how all the pieces of the puzzle work together. Try to create a story based on the material we covered. Some items may be less important in the story than others, but deciding which items are and aren’t important will help you learn the story without ignoring things.

Q: How should I decide what is important?

A: You need a multi-part plan.

  1. Creating a mental timeline is important. Certain things occur in order relative to each other. Who wrote texts at what point in history? What was happening–either historical events or intellectual ideas–at the time of writing that might have had an impact on the literature? How long did the events or ideas continue to be relevant to writers’ works? How are two works of literature from the same period similar and different? How do they differ from works at other times in history? Remembering some dates are important for constructing mental timelines. They may be rough benchmarks, dates indicating beginnings and ends of period, or landmarks, dates of events that had particularly consequential results for long-term literary history. If you see dates in your notes, ask yourself whether they are rough benchmarks, landmarks, or incidental events that flesh out the historical period for you. If you don’t see dates in your notes, think about what dates could serve as rough benchmarks or landmarks.
  2. Understanding any period in history requires familiarity with the names of its more important people, places, events, and cultural concepts. You should able to name them (and spelling them correctly) for any given period you have studied after just a few seconds of thought. This is not just rote memorisation. You need to decide whether you can relate these names to works of literature. That is a measure of their importance.
  3. You can only understand the ideas embedded literary texts if you understand the words on the most basic level. Make sure you know the plots and the names of the characters (again, you don’t really know them if you can’t spell them correctly). You need to re-read the texts and, if possible, re-read them again. Break them down into sections and write summaries of the sections. Look especially at the sections we highlighted in class. There’s a reason why I brought them to your attention or why they came out in class discussion.
  4. Know the names of the authors and the original languages of literary works. It seems obvious, but a surprisingly large number of people don’t retain this information. Failure to learn the simplest of details about a work of literature almost always correlates to a lack of understanding of its complexities.